It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote, "Things are in the saddle and ride mankind." This was at the dawn of industrial technology and around the same time Thoreau took to the woods and chicken-scratched a living while writing Walden, one of the world's great books. I wonder though what Emerson and Thoreau might say today about the dawning digital age. What up, mankind? Or does it have to be 'humankind' and gender friendly? And is 'what up' so heavily hipped-and-hopped, it's already aged?
It was Muhammad Ali, quoting someone else, who said in an interview, "Nothing's old as yesterday's news." Famous quotes ride mankind just as much as "things."
Like the well-remembered exchange of lines between Thoreau and Emerson. Thoreau, thrown in a Concord jail for not paying the tax that supported the Mexican War was protesting the tenor of his time -- manifest destiny, or might makes right. Mr. Emerson asked his friend, "Why did you go to jail?" Henry answered, for history as well as himself, "Why did you not?"
We have reached another point of the compass, where, once again, something's in the saddle and riding mankind. Call it what you will -- Time? -- we can't seem to keep up. We're breathless, all a-flutter with the eye-blink of change, with the anxious futility and brittle fragility of our time. We're tired of trying to second-guess what's up next. It's hard to take pleasure in something that's fading just as you just begin to think it's here to stay. Is anything here to stay? Other than change?
Essayist and critic of the digital age, Sven Birkerts suggests that America could become a country with libraries but no printed books, no bookstores, no readers. His recent Wall Street Journal article is as eerie as sci-fi -- "In recent decades, megastores like Borders and Barnes and Noble drove out the old independents in droves and then parked themselves like illuminated ocean liners in downtown intersections and malls in every corner of the land." It's hard for me to imagine the illumined liners, beached upon their own demise, the books and coffee and pastry gone elsewhere. But where?
Libraries even more than bookstores are having an identity crisis. Some are already on reduced hours and school libraries, especially vulnerable to budget cuts are really tightening their belts. One library may serve three schools in a given system. Town libraries have their PC stations humming for the minions, but many visitors are there for one reason only -- searching for jobs online. Major library systems that I have visited as an author have freezes on new book purchases. What's an author to do?
I had a funny author visit the other day when I walked into a school and the kids clamored with the news they'd read every one of my seventy-some books. I wondered how these sixth graders could have gobbled down so many hard-to-find titles. Then the librarian explained -- "They mean, Mr. Hausman, that they've read the reviews of your books on your website."
At another school, I mentioned the Pony Express in a story I was telling, and the kids stared at me blankly. I held up a hand-tooled, leather book bag, and said, "This is a facsimile mailbag carried by a mailboy on the Pony Express that galloped right through this very town." A boy in the front row asked to see the bag up close, and I gladly obliged him. "They must have had hardly any mail back then," he said in astonishment, "cause that bag's really small." "We're on our way to the same destination," I told him. But, in my head, I heard the word extinction.
I like to tell kids about what happened in my time, my father's, and even my grandfather's time. It never ceases to surprise them. I tell them about how Native Americans used the ancient digital code of the passing of moons and snow -- their way of marking and condensing time. I tell them about winter counts inscribed on tipis. And I wonder if this isn't exactly what we're doing in blogs: marking time, moment by moment so that somebody, somewhere, in some future world, might see it and say, "Hey, they didn't have mail like we have today -- where you just think a thought, and someone gets it."
Hope I live long enough to use that kind of Be-mail.
Gerald Hausman, author and storyteller, calls himself a native of the world. He is the author of 70 books, some of which have been made into films, many of which have been translated into foreign languages. His latest book, The American Storybag, was released by Stay Thirsty Press in October, 2010.
All opinions expressed by Gerald Hausman are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.